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Chef, celebrity and two engineers

What do a TV chef, celebrity, the man responsible for over 50 per cent of Rolls-Royce defence sector’s annual revenue and one of Britain’s top female engineers have in common? They all began their careers as apprentices.

The list does not end there. Rod Kenyon, director of the Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network, says that the sheer number of business leaders who have come up through apprenticeships “is clear evidence that apprentices can get ahead just as well as university graduates”.

Those who have reached the pinnacle of their profession through the apprenticeship route say that time learning on the job enhanced their people skills, boosted their confidence in the workplace and inflated their fledgling bank balance.

Apprentices starting today may be entering a more diverse workplace and have a wider array of sectors to choose from, but they still need the same drive and commitment if they want to make it to the very top.

Deborah Meaden, Dragons’ Den investor and businesswoman, recruits apprentices for her textiles factory, Fox Brothers & Co. “Teenagers have a lot going on in their lives,” she says. “Through all that, you’ve got to see something in their eyes that says ‘I want this’.”

For those who may not have been inspired by a traditional academic path, Ms Meaden adds: “There is nothing like apprenticeships for bringing out their passion and making the world of work their first real love.”

Ready steady – get cooking

Brian Turner, 66, TV chef and restaurateur, passed O Levels and took a catering course at a technology college, then worked for two years at Simpson’s in the Strand before moving to The Savoy Grill.

He became an apprentice at Simpson’s in the Strand when he was 17 and after decades as a professional chef maintains that “the best way to learn is at the side of a master”.

Brian is enthusiastic about the hard work that defines apprenticeship schemes. “I had a very good time at catering college,” he says. “You don’t have to work evenings, everything’s a party and everyone’s your mate.”

But things changed once he started his apprenticeship. “There may well be people in an apprenticeship workplace who you don’t like, but that’s life. You have to earn your stripes. It forces you to focus and it is the making of a lot of people.”

He lists the qualities needed to be an apprentice as “resilience, realism and a practical nature”. “It’s for the person who is really sure of the career path they want to follow,” he says. “If that’s you, then it really energises you, it helps you develop quicker and helps you define your ambitions.”

His advice to parents of young people considering an apprenticeship is to be pro-active. “Parents aren’t always as involved in their children’s apprenticeship scheme as they might be in a university application,” he says.

“You should speak to your child’s prospective employer, visit the places they would be working. Apprenticeships have moved on, there’s a lot more pastoral care these days and employers are keen to have that relationship.”

Motivational Badger is star apprentice

Ruth Badger, 34, businesswoman, finalist in TV’s The Apprentice, left school at 16 with three GCSEs and passed an NVQ level 2 in administration during a Civil Service apprenticeship at a Job Centre. 

She doesn’t put her current success down to being a finalist in The Apprentice, she credits it to being taken on as an apprentice when she was 16.

“I strongly believe I wouldn’t be where I am today without that chance,” she says. “Before that people judged me on my GCSE grades and not my ability. At 16, I couldn’t pass my maths GCSE, but every weekend I was working on a market, taking money and mentally calculating figures every minute.”

She had applied for hundreds of jobs. “But no one would give me a chance. They said I had no experience, but how was I meant to get experience when no one would give me a job?”

Ruth was offered a full-time job at the Civil Service on completing her one-year apprenticeship. “The moment I started the apprenticeship it gave me the stepping stone and the basic qualification I need to start my career.”

The apprenticeship taught her discipline for the first time and she counts this, and the right attitude, as key to her success. “The attitude that got me my apprenticeship in 1994 and then led me on to getting a full-time job is what you saw on The Apprentice,” she adds.

“All kids need an opportunity to work and learn. With the right attitude, doing an apprenticeship can lead you to whatever you want. It did for me.”

Engineering career ‘by accident’

Jayne Bryant, 53, engineering and technology director for defence information, BAE Systems, completed A Levels before starting an apprenticeship in software engineering at GEC Marconi. 

She had always wanted to be a maths teacher. “But I watched my older sister struggle to find a job in teaching and decided against going to university only to end up unemployed,” she says.

Instead she “jacked in” the university places she had been offered and took up an apprenticeship in software engineering at GEC Marconi and was one of only three females in an intake of 12. “It was a very male environment – they weren’t used to seeing girls.”

The first nine months did not run smoothly. “It was hell,” she says, in part because she joined the scheme a few weeks late. “I was thrown in at the deep end. There was so much to learn and it was scary being a teenager in an adult world.”

But near the end of the first year, something changed: “I remember doing a piece of work without any help and realising that I’d done it right, that perhaps I’d genuinely earned my wage that week.”

From then on, she relished the “applied education” and, instead of going on to university after a year as planned, she stuck with the apprenticeship.

“By the time I was 21, I had about 12 people working for me, no debts, my own car – so I never looked back. Now, I see it as the best thing I ever did.”

A Rolls-Royce example of loyalty

Paul Craig, 48, president defence services, Rolls-Royce, passed O Levels before joining the company as an apprentice and has subsequently gained a Masters degree in design systems and productions, and a Doctorate in engineering.

He joined Rolls-Royce as an apprentice at 16. Now the company’s president defence services, his career is the perfect example of the “company loyalty” he believes is engendered by apprenticeships.

Paul has no regrets about choosing an apprenticeship over a more convention university course. “People don’t ask about your education. You are judged on what you know and how you get on with people – both of which are helped by an apprenticeship.”

He cites the practical experience of all the skills and departments within an industry as the biggest advantage of an apprenticeship. “If you’re familiar with the shop floor and the people who work there, you are better at communicating and you get better results,” he says.

“I think apprenticeships can suit all kinds of people and disciplines – any industry that involves producing something for a customer.”

He does, however, describe himself as practical. “If I’m honest, I don’t think I could have stuck to a more theoretical course with the same degree of enthusiasm. I’m a practical person – I need to see results and get stuck in.”

Achieving the best of both worlds, his apprenticeship later enabled him to study for a Masters degree and Doctorate at Warwick University.